The Brontes experienced Christmas during the Georgian era – a low-key celebration of food and drink, card-games and pinning holly round the room – and Christmas under Queen Victoria. Her German husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain. Charles Dickens popularised the sentiment of Christmas in his book Christmas Carol (1843) and many of the customs we associate with a modern Christmas became established at this time, such as the giving of cards and presents.
The Yorkshire Wassail Bob
A Yorkshire custom – the Wassail Bob – was a forerunner of doorstep carol-singing. Two females – vessel maids – visited houses, door-to-door carrying “the bob:” a box holding tiny figures of Mary and baby Jesus. The bob or milly box, as it was also known, was decorated with greenery, the prettier the better. Householders then paid a penny to see it opened.
It’s natural to assume that local girls, parishioners of Reverend Patrick Bronte, must have visited the parsonage to sing a carol and perform this ritual during the Advent season. Since the word “wassail” means drinking a toast to another, we can assume that refreshment such as spiced wine was made available to callers .
One infers from letters to old friend Ellen Nussey, that Charlotte, having spent time away from home, during her Roe Bridge days and later, in Brussels, must have relished the seasonal reunion with her family. Strangely, though, there is no mention of Christmas festivities, however several significant events for the family, happened in December.
In Haworth, December, 1836, the steep icy hill-climb proved dangerous for Tabby, the Brontes’ beloved servant. Several days after Charlotte arrived home for Christmas, Tabby slipped and fell, breaking her leg, leaving the sisters with the tasks of keeping house and nursing her. Charlotte wrote to Ellen, cancelling her seasonal visit, as she was afraid Tabby might die, such was her health at the time.
Years later, in a letter, dated 13th December 1846, Charlotte wrote to Ellen of the British winter, calling it: “a series of North Pole days-….the sky looks like ice – the earth is frozen , the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade….”
Emily’s Christmas Tragedies
One Christmas Day in 1847 The Athenaeum published a scathing review of Wuthering Heights calling it “a disagreeable story.” The reviewer complained that the Brontes (all writing under the surname Bell) “seem to affect painful and exceptional subjects – the misdeeds and oppression of tyranny.” The Brontes experienced their fair share of tragedy, which is the reason so many admire their writing for being real and earthy compared to many of their contemporaries’ offerings.
Charlotte’s most difficult Christmas, must surely have been in 1848. Just three months after the death of Branwell, Emily died from consumption on 19th December in 1848. Three days before Christmas, Emily was buried on 22nd December in the family vault in Haworth.
A much happier Christmas occurred for Charlotte a year later, after spending a sociable time in London, mixing in literary circles. She wrote to Ellen on December 19th, that she had come out of “an exciting whirl.” Ellen visited her and stayed for three weeks. Charlotte revealed to her for the first time, that she was the famous Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre’s Christmas
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte tells of Jane’s childhood home Gateshead with her cruel aunt and spoilt cousins. “Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated at Gateshead with the usual festive cheer; presents had been interchanged, dinners and evening parties given.’
Orphan Jane is excluded from these celebrations, but later has the opportunity to enjoy Christmas as an adult, with cousins Mary and Diana at Moor House, during which she promises to assist in the baking: …’such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince-pies, and solemnising of other culinary rites…’
Nelly Dean’s Christmas
Meanwhile in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte depicts Christmas through the eyes of housekeeper Nelly Dean.
‘… our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, ..They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas…’
‘After putting my cakes in the oven, …Christmas Eve, I prepared to sit down and amuse myself by singing carols, all alone … I smelt the rich scent of heating spices; and admired … the polished clock, decked in holly, the silver mugs …ready to be filled with mulled ale for supper…’
From these passages, we learn that music, carols, cake, mince pies, spiced ale and holly hanging were usual ways of marking Christmas.
Helen Graham’s Christmas
Anne does not mention Christmas festivities but in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen’s diary account is sad and poignant, looking back on happier times.
‘DECEMBER 25th. – Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future, though not unmingled with foreboding fears. Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered…’
The Brontes, when altogether, we can guess would have celebrated Christmas merrily, dining on plum pudding, drinking mulled wine and attending their father’s church service. All we can do is imagine this however, since much of their intimate life remains a mystery. No doubt, they helped Tabby stir the cake-mix and once it was baked, they sat and devoured it ‘Yorkshire style’ by the kitchen fire, with a nice piece of Wensleydale.